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Lessons old Cabernet can teach

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My San Francisco wine tasting group met again yesterday, in our usual haunt at Pier 19, just north of the Bay Bridge, and with a fine view of the span arching so gracefully to Yerba Buena Island. The theme was old Cabernet; beyond that, our host, Gary Cowan, of Fine Wines International, told us nothing. As this was an extraordinarily educational tasting for me, I thought I’d share the results here.

There were 9 wines. I knew instantly that #1 was very old. From the pale color and, even more, the maderized smell and taste, I guessed it to be 1960s Napa Valley. In fact, it was 1973 Castlerock Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was a forerunner of today’s Yates Family/Napa Redwoods Estate, and the grapes came from Mount Veeder. I scored it 92 points “for historical interest…a ghostly remnant from another era.” (Words in quotes are from my notes during the tasting. Prices are retail, as determined by Gary.)
My ranking: 5. Group ranking: 7 ($N/A)

#2: Another old Cabernet that I found “dried out, bitter, dead.” Most of the group agreed with me, but one of us loved it. It was 1970 Chateau Montrose (which Parker called “unquestionably a 40-50 year wine”). Well, it is nearing 40. I gave it 86 points, out of respect for its “curiosity” value.
My ranking: 7. Group ranking: 9 ($250)

#3: Yet another old Cabernet, but “still with some sweetness…charming.” Maderized, yes, but “buttery-sugary. Marzipan.” It was Freemark Abbey 1974 Bosche. I gave it 93 points, despite some still-hard, bitter tannins.
My ranking: 4. Group ranking: 6. ($150)

#4. This was my last place wine, and the most polemical of any our group ever tasted. It earned 3 firsts, 3 ninths, 1 eighth and 1 fourth. I couldn’t get past the burnt rubber smell. It was 1990 Ridge Montebello, a wine I had not tasted previously, although I had given the 1991 95 points. It is very difficult to explain how and why a group divides down the middle on such a wine. I gave it 70 points, “undrinkable.”
My ranking: 9. Group ranking: 4. ($225)

#5. I didn’t care for this wine, either, mainly because it was dominated by a curiously deadening aroma of mold. Others perceived the same. It wasn’t TCA. It was also hard and tannic. It was the 1984 Joseph Phelps Eisele, from the vineyard in Calistoga, and I gave it only 83 points.
My ranking: 8. Group ranking: 8. ($195)

#6. I called this “solid, old-style Cabernet” and judged it to be from the 1980s. “Bone dry, tannic, with old-style blackberry, currant and cedar flavors.” It was quite a good wine, with some life ahead, and I gave it 91 points. It was Heitz’s 1985 Martha’s Vineyard.
My ranking: 6. Group ranking: 5. ($250-$325)

#7. With this wine we entered a much younger era. The tannins were entirely different from the previous wines: softer, rounder, more refined. The wine was 1992 La Jota “Anniversary” Cabernet, and I gave it 94 points for its “dense, powerful, concentrated” structure. I was reminded that by the early 1990s the era of tannin management (bladder presses, riper fruit, canopy management) already was underway. It was a beautiful wine with still a good future.
My ranking: 3. Group ranking: 1. ($195)

#8. This wine seemed older than #7, although Gary usually arranges the wines from oldest to youngest. It was paler, and certainly more brittle and lighter in body. Yet I loved its elegance, its almost tea-like delicacy, and the floral-sandalwood and cherry flavors. It was 1990 Cos d’Estournal, a beautiful old Bordeaux. “Enjoyable and complex.” I scored it 93 points.
My ranking: 2. Group ranking: 3. ($255)

#9. This was my highest-ranking wine, but by the end of the tasting, I probably would have scored it a little lower. It was the 1991 Beringer Chabot Vineyard Cabernet, and I initially gave it 94 points for its sheer, Napa-esque muscularity. The primary fruit was just beginning to evolve to more mature bottle notes. A great Cabernet that seemed far younger than 18 years. This led to a discussion about allowing wines to air before you rate them. For example, the #1 wine — the 1973 Castlerock — continued to gain in aromatic complexity after 2 hours in the glass; I would have scored it higher had I tasted it later. Some of our group argued for future wines, especially older ones, to be put in glass at least 2 hours before we taste them, to let them breathe. This isn’t a bad idea.
My ranking: 1. Group ranking: 2. ($225)

Gary followed the tasting by treating us to an astonishing white wine: von Othegraven 2008 Altenberg Riesling Kabinett Erste Lage, from the Saar. It was a near-perfect Riesling, off-dry and minerally, with a tang of citrus, tangerine, flowers and honey. And what acidity! The alcohol was 8.5%. Gary plans to retail this beauty for $28. A steal.

I’ll be going down to Monterey this Friday for the Great Wine Escape Weekend, which Wine Enthusiast co-sponsors; Saturday night is our big Wine Enthusiast Signature Winemaker Dinner. This year it’s 5 courses, each prepared by a chef from a different venue (PlumpJack, the Intercontinental Monterey, the Food Network, the Carneros Inn and the Intercontinental’s pastry chef). There will be 2 wines with each course, i.e. 10 wines in all, which means I’m going to have to set limits; otherwise, I’ll be slurring my M.C. words by night’s end! It’s happened before…

  1. Is it usually the case the youngest wines do best in these sorts of tastings? The consensus top 4 were all 1990 or younger. Or perhaps it’s a matter of timing. The young wines had a chance to open. But maybe also the tasters’ palates had a chance to ‘warm up’ as well.

  2. What does ‘Maderized’ mean? Is it a good/bad thing? I’m a relative newby to wine, much less classic wines. Very informative article by the way. Keep up the fun and great writing.

  3. Nick: “maderized” means, basically, oxidized. It usually refers to an old wine or one that’s had bad treatment, usually excessive heat. It’s named
    after Madeira wine, which is deliberately oxidized to get its distinctive aroma and flavor.

  4. Greg, I think there are older California Cabernets and Bordeaux that would have scored better. Unfortunately, they weren’t a part of our tasting!

  5. Carlos Toledo says:

    Madeira/madera = wood (barrel) in a couple of languages (portugues and castellano…). It got me confused too. I thought maderized meant oaky. Oh the humanity.

  6. Madera is a county in California. Madeira are islands in the North Atlantic.

  7. Steve,

    At the end of this post you write:

    “Some of our group argued for future wines, especially older ones, to be put in glass at least 2 hours before we taste them, to let them breathe. This isn’t a bad idea.”

    I always thought that older wines deteriorated faster after opening. Conversely, I’ve also had luck decanting younger wines (let’s say within the past five years) to help make them more approachable.

    Am I missing the boat or is there just no hard and fast rule to follow in such occasions?

    Thanks

  8. That 91 Chabot was a monster in its youth…probably the best cabernet I’ve ever had from that vineyard. It’s still unsed in good portion in Beringer’s PR lineup and for the old timers here, they probably remember when Beringer’s PR was the Lemon-Chabot vineyard cabs.

    I’ve seen a bit of bottle variation with the 85 Martha’s. Sounds like a fun set of wines.

  9. I would be very leery of giving old wines hours of breathing time. Some may improve; many will simply dry up and die long before the two hours are up. Old wines should be tasted immediately and assessed based on what you find – if they seem to have a lot of life left in them, then nurse them along slowly.

    Steve, I assume that the Cos was a ringer. Did you guess it? Did anyone guess it? Was there any discussion of the fact that these old CA wines had moderate (eg sensible) alcohol levels and were not subjected to the raisinification and jammification and absurd leafpulling, berry-dropping rituals that lead to 17% alcohol wines today? And amazingly they managed to live long and fruitful lives! Just sayin’…

  10. Paul, yeah, there was lots of discussion about alcohol levels, and how the older ones were much lower than the newer ones. I didn’t particularly mark the Cos as a Bordeaux although once it was revealed it made total sense: the delicacy and finesse compared to the heaviness of the Californians. I agree it’s less likely that the big, 15+ Cali wines will live long lives, but let’s make sure you and I are around to see.

  11. Frank, I think in older wines there’s always a lot of bottle variation. Like that old saying goes, “There are no great wines, only great bottles.”

  12. Walt, I KNEW people would say what you said! I’m no longer sure that the “old wines deteriorate faster” argument is valid. There are numerous anecdotes of people tasting exceptionally old (100-plus years) Bordeaux that grew sweeter as they sat in the glass. I think it’s time to dispose of that theory. 20-30 year old Barolo and Barbaresco similarly grow better and better the more they breathe.

  13. Thanks Steve,

    At the next opportunity I’ll give it a try. I was never one to pass up a learning opportunity.

  14. What were these wines’ provenances?
    It seems odd in terms of being “correct” (vs just bad winemaking) that the wines that traveled a short distance fell to the transatlantic Cos. Is there a Bordeaux (comme Bermuda) triangle?
    Is cellaring not what it’s cracked up to be?
    Would we be right in saying that California Bordeaux blends are just different from French Bordeaux blends? End of conversation…?
    Should we sell our old California wines?
    If given the offer, would you prefer an old Ca or old Bordeaux (lets say 30 years plus)?

  15. Looks like a great tasting! Thanks so much for the notes.

  16. I would side with giving them air. So many older bottles have initial off aromas when opened only to show themselves as beautiful mature wines after an hour or so. Sadly people all to often write off the wine just after they pop the cork. The wine has been sleeping for 20+ years give it a few minutes to open up!

  17. Wow Kathy you asked a book’s worth of questions (and I think you already know the answers!). I don’t know the provenances, but Fine Wines International is respected as a retailer so I’m sure they did their homework. It’s always difficult to make sweeping generalizations based on a single tasting, but I’ll stick my neck out there and say that in my experience Bordeaux ages better than California Cab! Even my friend Jim Laube a few years back wrote that he doesn’t believe Cabs age as well as he once thought they did. (At least, if memory serves me correctly, he wrote that in a column.) As for Parker, his long-range prognostications for California wines seem increasingly unlikely.

  18. >>Frank, I think in older wines there’s always a lot of bottle variation. Like that old saying goes, “There are no great wines, only great bottles.”

    Oh yeah, 1985 was 24 years ago….time for me to put away the Duran Duran LPs. :-)

    I think Parker’s old Aussie predictions might be a little unlikely too. Just try some of those Clarendon Hills Grenache wines that he proclaimed would live for 20+ years. Most of them cracked up after 5 or 6 years.

  19. The wild swings of #4 would seem to argue against arriving at an average or a summing score, putting it fourth. While it had high appeal to some it was dissed by an equal number. Three last place votes out of eight tasters would seem to indicate that it should be shoved further down the list. But I understand what happens when you add up the scores. Perhaps some weighting is in order. I wonder how a group methodology can reflect this problem, so that coming in last among more than 1/3 of the tasters would have a kind of veto power, placing it at the end.

  20. Tom, I think the answer, as usual, is full disclosure. Let people know that among an experienced group some hated it, some loved it, and some were in the middle. The consumer can make the ultimate choice.

  21. Paul G
    You got it. Until the nineties, normal harvest Brix in Napa was 23 or 23.5, with “unripe” tannins and decently moderate pH. It took a few years in bottle to become nice. Old-timers figured a Napa Cab was at its peak at eight to twelve years. The wines were longer lived, especially if bottled with adequate SO2. This modern BS about hang time is because of Parker. Period. If you want sweet high alcohol wines, drink port. This business is in the worst shape in recorded history. Terroir- how can you taste terroir through RS, too much oak, added tannins, added acid, added enzymes, added yeast polysaccharides, and either 15% alcohol or de-alc treatment? (Nothing personal, Clark- we can have that discussion later, and you will win it, no doubt.) Also, even very high end wineries commonly acidify the beejeezus out of their high-pH overripe raisined fruit so it can survive a year in barrel without rottting, then chemically de-acidify it before bottling, so it feels “lush”. This business is total BS. Most modern wine is a joke. Worse, it’s a manufactured commodity parading as an artisanal artifact of social distinction. If wineries had to post the ingredients and processing on their labels you’d see how bogus it all is. Most winemakers thesedays are a bunch of sheep led around the money-pasture by the marketing goat, and believing everything they read in the wine-additives catalogs. Mark

  22. Steve,

    That’s right. Which is why I include a link to the spread sheet of my group’s scores. Putting aside the wines being scrutininzed, I’m always looking for those current releases that enjoy broad appeal. I assume there was real consensus on the first three; you certainly were in sync with the group. As a consumer, particularly at higher price points, I would stay away from wines that a large minority of a tasting panel found deficient.

  23. George Parkinson says:

    Steve,
    Thank you for this article. I always love to read notes on older wines. We as a consuming society rarely keep these thing around that long. 10 years OK, but past that is a rareity and I take notice when given the opportunity to either taste these wines or read about them. I am surprised that there were no Sonoma wines in the line up, was this due to availability?.

    Also, as an observation, 1973 to 1992 is, in my opinion, too wide a range to compare older wines apples to apples. The 1970′s, 1980′s, and 1990′s each represent generational differences in clonal selection, vineyard managment, and wine making approach especially in California where manipulation was more a part of the wine making scene in the 70′s and much less by the 90′s and I think you saw this in the Ridge Cabernet versus the La Jota. Still it was a great read and maybe next time your group might focus on a single decade for comparison sake. just a thought.

  24. George Parkinson says:

    Quick follow – up… I wrote Ridge versus La Jota; Meant Castlerock versus la jota. my bad.

  25. Appreciate this article. I’d love to find or set up a similar event/club in the DC metro area. I’ve been picking up the occasional older bottle from Acker’s online auctions, and have been pleasantly surprised by a number of them, including an ’82 Moulin-a-Vent. I bought 2 bottles for about $8. The first was a bit rowdy, but the second bottle was pristine and delicious.

  26. I had a wonderful 1978 Duckhorn Napa Cabernet (their inagural vintage?) over the weekend and it was great. The best elderly Cali Cab I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a few going back to the early 60′s.

  27. The question about which will age longer, CA or Bordeaux, is trickier than just quoting Jim Laube (a perfectly good guy, by the way, and no denigration meant).

    We have ample evidence that the CA Cabs of the 1970s outlasted their Bordeaux counterparts. In most redos of the Paris tasting, including two done in NY by Mark Golodetz, the CA wines were significantly better thirty years later. He related that his tasters were mainly Francophiles and they picked out Gemello 1970 as Latour as they gave ti 14 of 15 first place votes.

    However, there is not a CA vintage in the 1980s that is outliving the Bordeaux 1982s. There are CA wines that will live as long but not a vintage as a whole.

    In the 1990s, we begin to get into the ripe era of CA wines, and we are all guessing that they may not hold up. But, we do not have a lot of evidence at this point. I thought the 1990s were lovely, and they were, but they were like the 1974s from Napa–deep, tasty and forward, and destined to last fifteen to twenty years, not thirty plus the way the 1968s and 1970s have done. 1994 may be 1990 all over again, but 1995 is a sturdier year, and despite the scorn heaped on the 1998s in some quarters, there are many elegant wines from that vintage that are holding up better than the more heralded 1997s.

    Still, when I have done verticals of Spottswoode and Shafer Hillside Select in recent years, I have seen nothing in those wines that suggests early senility. Indeed, it is just the opposite. Those wines are holding up across the vintages and will live long past twenty years.

    So, the question then needs to be asked. How much longer than twenty years does a wine need to live before we can admit that it has aged well? The standard ought not be how well something else has aged. It really does not matter if great Bordeaux lives for forty years and great CA Cab lives for thirty-two–or vice versa. At that point, it becomes, in my humble opinion, a fool’s argument.

  28. Oh, meant to mention that I published a tasting of 1968 CA Cabs a year ago and found many of them more interesting than mere curiosities. Yet, very few of them were made with modern techniques.

  29. Steve,
    Great tasting notes.
    Re: the 1990 Monte Bello, for what it’s worth, this is one of my all time favorite Monte Bellos, and I have never tasted burnt rubber on it, but I have heard from people at the winery that 1990 displayed some bottle variation which may (but may not) account for some in your group loving it, others not so much.
    Cheers,

  30. german wine guy says:

    I recently had the 1970 Montrose, thought it was pretty good, not past its prime as you found it, perhaps bottle variation? I still have 6 of them, and live in the area…maybe next time your at Pier 19, you can stop into DVW and we can pop the cork!!!

  31. Steve–

    I just reread your article because I am still thinking about your comments re the longevity of CA wines. As I read your notes, Heitz Martha’s 1985, at 24 years old still has a bit of time left and that 1991 and 1991 CA Cabs were young, tight and structured.

    So, the point comes up in my wee brain once again. How long do CA wines need to age before people admit that they age longer than we deserve?” Any wine that is still nascent at 18 years at eighteen years has earned the right to be called a long-aging wine.

    I would say the proof is right there in your tasting. Well-made CA Cabs last far beyond 20 years in very good shape.

  32. “Most winemakers these days are a bunch of sheep led around the money-pasture by the marketing goat, and believing everything they read in the wine-additives catalogs.” mb

    “My experience has been that goats are smarter than sheep, but more destructive.” jev

  33. Steve,

    I think the last tasting I did with you down at the pier was some old chardonnay, and that led to quite a few surprises!

    I wanted to chime in and let you know that Tom kindly brought home the remainder of the Montibello and it was quite a different story at 8pm! Silky, balanced and no old tires in site! The continuous adventure is exploring a wine’s various stages, both in it’s journey in the bottle and once opened!

  34. I have my own ideas about the significance of aged wine (especially when tasted/evaluated against younger wine). Having grown up on CA Cab, and many more “current” releases than older, I wonder, sometimes, what the big deal is with the 30-40 year old versions. For every older wine that shows interesting evolution of flavors and aromas, there is another that has lost all fruit, structure, and oomph.

    Maybe Steve and Charlie can tell me what I’m missing.

  35. Steven, my experience is the same as yours: more disappointing than not. I have had benchmark wines (French and Italian) that are quite old (20-40 years) that have startled and delighted me. A few California Cabs have done that; not many. I wish I had more opportunity to taste properly aged California wines.

  36. Is a wine inherently “of higher quality” if it can age? I was at a tasting a couple of years back with a group of guys who were predominantly of my father’s generation. They oohed and aahed the older CA cabs. Those wines were intellectually, but not gustatorily, interesting, for the most part.

    It seems to be an accepted “fact” that wines that can age (20-30) are of greater quality than a 10-15 year specimen, but like most things in WineWorld, the basis for this seems to be simply handed-down “wisdom” of the ‘red wine with meat’ variety.

  37. Steven, I often wonder the same thing. I haven’t had a lot of older wines. But I have two conclusions at this point. One, they certainly have aromas that one cannot find in young wines. Two, they vary widely.

    Given the random nature of older wines, I’m more inclined to drink younger. I prefer freshness of fruit generally, and certain styles of wine can be very complex without developing bottle aromas. I’m certainly attempting some aging ‘experiments’ but my goal is really to let tannins and acids integrate, with perhaps some bottle aromas developing.

    Seeing if a wine will last longer than it takes to become pleasurable to drink strikes me as a form of gambling. I also wonder how well wines of lesser pedigree could age. Everyone drinks the mid-level Bdx up, then saves Margaux and Petrus for 30 years. It becomes a straw man argument in some sense since a ‘lesser’ wine clearly ages worse if it’s been drunk. Insufficient/excessive age can also be used as an excuse for a ‘great’ wine that just didn’t perform well.

    Maybe I’m too pragmatic. You age as long as is necessary. If a Cab takes 5 years or 10 years, then fine. A rosé probably only needs to overcome bottle shock for a few months. On the flip side, I don’t like wine being manipulated to drink younger. Nature determines the wine’s nature, humans must figure out how long it takes to reach maturity.

  38. Greg

    I agree on the aromatic component of aged wines. They can be very interesting…I prop myself up on the point I made about them being intellectually interesting but not so much from a gustatory standpoint.

    I prefer drinking something on the upward curve instead of the downward one.

  39. Steven–

    If you had come to dinner on Friday night after my visit with you at the winery, you would have tasted the following with the folowing results.

    Patenina Rioja 1952–In unbelievably beautiful shape. Yes, now toothless as to tannin but rich, deep, sweet, concentrated and layered flavors and perfectly mated to the grilled duck breast and wild mushroom risotto. And amazingly, Rob had brought this wine with him from Boston.

    Heitz 1962 Pinot Noir–I took this wine out because I had always been unwilling to open it. It was a special gift from Barney Rhodes back when I started CGCW, and he gave it to me because at that point, I had very little experience with older CA wines since they really did not exist and I had not yet started collecting rarities. I expected thin and dead. Instead, we got complex flavors of old, dried flowers, aged but intact fruit and the kind of richness that only comes when wine ages well.

    Mount Eden 1973 Pinot Noir and Joe Swan 1981 Pinot Noir–As if to prove the point made so many times already in this discussion, both of these wines had gone so far past their prime that they were curiosities at best. Some folks liked them. I was not very happy with them.

    But, please note. These wines were 36 and 27 years old and they were Pinot Noir, not Cabernet or Syrah.

    So, among the old wines, the two oldest were experiences that cannot be duplicated with young wines, and the other two, no spring chickens, were not very good.

    My attitude is that one takes the risk of aging some wine to old age because of the possibilities. It was probably a lot easier when the wines that went into my cellar in the early 70s at the time my collecting began cost $5-15.

    And, perhaps because I have been at this for four decades, I feel like I have something to prove to you and Steve Heimoff. We will have to do a tasting of my 1970 CA Cabs next year on their 40th birthday. I predict that you will discover some wines, not all, that are magical in their aromas and flavors. And all they cost me were a few bucks and some electricity.

  40. Charlie, if you host it, I will come.

  41. Necropheliatrics? interesting notes and comments. The polarized comments were intersting. The generally ‘old school’ wines usually will suffer when compared to more recently ‘crafted’ offerings. I often wonder at which juncture my (our your) palate gets tricked. Meanwhile: no doubt the older wines suffered from not being able to air-out. (To err is human; to breathe is da wine.)
    Hard to believe the Ridge didn’t show better: A usually and universally stunning wine. Ditto the Montrose. Perhaps palates were warped out by the lineup.
    Meanwhile, that 85 Heitz Martha’s was a bit ‘controversial’ : so much so that Joe was seriously alarmed. The ‘wet cardboard’ character, noted not long after release, seems to linger: and diminish as the wine opens up over time::: Side by each, it is often prevalent, and could be considered ‘flawed,’ while some might consider it nuanced. I am suprised that it wasn’t noticed. —- perhaps it’s ‘gone away’ ?????? I haven’t tried it in a while.
    Maybe we are better off tasting one bottle at a time: with food and good company: enjoying each wine for what they are, rather than our natural instincts to pick the one we like best, hence letting nuance become flaws.

    Cheers!

  42. Necroenophiles ? Birthday celebrations this year with a 1945 Chateau Rouget – a Bordeaux beauty with surprising fruit and soft wood tannins. 1968 Heitz Martha’s VY was a dissappointment – brown and thin with no eucalyptus/ mint left and barely any fruit. However, a 1942 Georges Latour BV Cab was amazingly youthful… so bottle variation may be a key component.
    I would never let an older wine breathe for 2 hours in the glass – you might miss the life it still holds to share with you.
    A young wine often needs macro-areation to tame it into drinkability if it is not already off balance in the high alcohol school of RP wannabees.
    I’ll have to open the Ridge Montebello now…just to see where mine stands.
    Thank you Steve, for the tasting notes.
    I hope I don’t agree with you…(-;

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